The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07″. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.

Power Failure: the tragedy of Australian climate politics

power failureThe book Power Failure, about Australia’s intransigence on climate change, was a personal mission for journalist Philip Chubb. Chubb and his family lived at Cottles Bridge near Melbourne and watched year after year as the summers got hotter. On Saturday, 7 February 2009 he stood in record-breaking heat with fire plan in hand hoping the blaze would not come over the hill and kill his family. They survived but Chubb’s closest friends died as they hid under their kitchen table. Chubb knew changes in the climate had fuelled the intensity of the fire.

The reaction to Black Saturday showed there was still divisions and fears from those who could not, or would not, see the connection. News Corp columnist Miranda Devine said the fires weren’t caused by climate change but habitat protection promoted by environmentalists. “Greenies,” Devine said, should be “hanging from lamp-posts” for their ideology which prevented “landowners from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.” Devine could have been dismissed as a lunatic outlier, but she carried a big megaphone News Corp were willing to lend to anyone who muddied the waters on climate change science.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd recognised climate change as a national emergency when he won the election in 2007. He saw surveys showing climate change response could impact every seven votes in ten. Rudd spoke of great moral challenges and pledged to reorganise the national economy around new energy industries. He introduced an emission trading scheme into parliament and appointed Ross Garnaut to examine the economic impacts and recommend a framework. With bipartisan support, it seemed as though intelligent and non-partisan debate about climate change had become the norm.

The Australian Public Service Commission defined climate change in economic terms as a “wicked problem” – a pressing and complex issue involving many causes and much disagreement about possible solutions. Australia relies on fossil fuel with four out of five power stations running on coal, making the nation the world’s biggest per-capita greenhouse gas emitter. Private companies making money from fossil fuel also had a vested interest in climate policy failure for 25 years.

In 1990 the Bob Hawke government developed Australia’s first climate change policy aiming to stabilise emissions but not at the expense of the economy. In 1996 John Howard rolled back these modest goals refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and overriding advice to bring in emissions trading in 2003. Howard’s position was repudiated by the electorate in 20007. After temperatures in the high 40s led to the Black Saturday fires, Rudd had the opportunity to go on the front foot. Chubb’s book forensically examines how that unravelled over the four years that followed, leaving Australia further adrift than ever on effective climate action.

Rudd’s character flaws are discussed in detail in Wayne Swan’s autobiography. Kevin 24-7’s micromanaged leadership style led to dysfunction in many areas of government including climate change. Policy making was the sole preserve of Rudd, Swan and Penny Wong but with Swan absorbed in the financial crisis, Rudd and Wong were the only ones who fully understood Labor’s climate change policy. Everyone else was in the dark. There was little or no inter-departmental or stakeholder consultation and most cabinet ministers were out of the loop. Power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Rudd and Wong also made the fatal mistake of not keeping the people informed as the policy took shape. Early enthusiasm for change dissipated in an information vacuum, robbing Labor of the threat of an early election to resolve the growing political impasse. As the passion for action dulled, the Opposition hammered away to create doubt and weaken resolve. Murdoch media was unforgiving while affected companies warned of job losses and an investment freeze. The year 2009 dragged on in arguments over compensation to polluters, eventually agreed at $7.3 billion, a huge amount the companies still weren’t happy with.

Rudd had a pressing need to cash in on his phenomenal personal popularity to lock in public support for climate action, but he wouldn’t talk about it. Nor was he open about the impact of carbon pricing on the cost of living. Because the community had stopped hearing about the issue, they started questioning its importance and whether it was worth paying for. Rudd had squandered consensus. Between 2008 and 2010 Newspoll showed an 11% drop in belief in climate change and by 2011 the proportion of Australians opposing action with significant costs had doubled. The breaking of the drought in late 2009 also contributed to change in public perception with many equating climate change with a lack of rain.

Having abandoned the public, Rudd put his trust in two dangerous sources: the parliamentary opposition, and global action at the 2009 UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He would be betrayed in both battles. Rudd’s parliamentary failure was entirely his own fault. He wanted to pass his legislation in the Senate with the help of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull. But he also played wedge politics against Turnbull and Liberal moderates which saw Opposition climate sceptics grab power in the party room. By then Rudd had alienated the Greens so there was no plan B.

The clumsily-named Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme first hit the Senate in mid-2009 when Turnbull was still in charge. Turnbull said the legislation was hasty and pushed for delay. The Opposition voted against it but Turnbull was worried at that stage about fighting a climate change election so he promised to negotiate later in the year. By then National party maverick Barnaby Joyce was openly calling the CPRS a “great big new tax on everything” and said the Sunday roast would cost up to $150.

This scare campaign was inaccurate but devastating as the government had never conceded there would be any cost of living increases. Turnbull’s party room openly grumbled about giving supporting the government on climate change. Shadow Minister Tony Abbott told a September 2009 meeting in Beaufort, Victoria that climate change was “absolute crap”. The speech went down well with his older rural audience.Abbott later said this was not his “considered opinion” but also admitted the meeting convinced him to act against the policy.

In November Penny Wong and Ian Macfarlane finally began negotiations on the CPRS. The resulting deal was good for the big polluters. The LNG industry got a top-up allocation of permits, the coal industry’s handout was doubled, there were more handouts to electricity generators, steelmakers and other manufacturers and the global recession buffer was extended to 2020. Yet it was still a climate deal. Turnbull was delighted but his party room was not. There was a spill on December 1, 2009 and Turnbull lost to Tony Abbott by one vote. The third contender Joe Hockey ruled himself out with his accurate but cowardly stance that voting on climate change was a conscience decision. Abbott had no conscience on the matter. He immediately reneged on the deal with Labor and the climate consensus was finished.

Rudd’s office was initially delighted by the result thinking Abbott would shoot himself in the foot and never be electorally popular. But Abbott pushed hard on the simple message of the “great big new tax” saying emissions could be reduced by other less costly means. Rudd’s hope of getting the Greens onside were destroyed by the Wong-Macfarlane compromise. The CPRS was defeated a second time in the Senate in December 2009 by the Opposition and the Greens, despite two Liberal senators voting with Labor.

Rudd went to Copenhagen undaunted, convinced by his ability to knock together world heads. The conference was chaotic to the point of anarchy with many different alliances and divisions. Rudd told delegates a grand bargain was within their grasp but no one was listening. The conference ended without agreement. An emotionally drained Rudd blamed “Chinese fuckers” for trying to “ratfuck us” but as the Chinese economy continue to expand, it was mandarin scholar Rudd that ended up “ratfucked” in 2010.

Abbott began his onslaught buoyed by the failure of the summit and the release of hacked emails of climate scientists that wrongly suggested the environmental threat was exaggerated. Unable to openly embrace the sceptics, Abbott developed “direct action” to reduce emissions. Rudd became paralysed by doubt at the prospect of a double dissolution election. He gave the impression he would call the election in January so many staffers cancelled holidays to work out a campaign. Rudd’s supporters later claimed Julia Gillard talked him out of that election though Gillard said it was Rudd’s idea.

By Australia Day Rudd had abandoned climate change and was instead promoting health reform, leaving staff and ministers speechless. In early 2010 UK climate sceptic Chris Monckton toured Australia, garnering public legitimacy through huge media coverage. Abbott met Monckton and later parroted some of his views. Rudd was nowhere to be seen and never publicly attacked Monckton’s rubbish. Instead he looked at an abatement plan suspiciously similar to Abbott’s direct action and just as useless in meeting targets. This “Abbott lite” plan gave him an excuse to indefinitely delay the CPRS. The decision was leaked to the media in April and Rudd publicly admitted it was pushed back to 2013 unless there was “credible action” in China, India and the US. The moral challenge was not so great after all.

The impact was disastrous and immediate. The Coalition had their first lead in the polls in four years and Rudd’s personal approval rating dropped 15 points. The disaffection spread to the party room tired of a command and control leadership style with no substance. Incredibly by 24 June, he vacated the leadership without a fight. Rudd saw the numbers were against him. Julia Gillard took the reins without a vote and without explaining the darkness at the heart of government that caused the change. The outcome left Rudd to successfully play the martyr for the next three years.

Gillard’s immediate poll numbers were encouraging but it was a short honeymoon. On climate change Gillard pushed to restore consensus with a citizens’ assembly. The idea was ridiculed as “a giant focus group” and an excuse for inaction. Gillard struck deals on the mining tax and immigration to fend off the right and climate change did not feature much in the 2010 election. Abbott reiterated his doubt of climate science while Gillard publicly ruled out a carbon tax. The campaign was a disaster for Labor as well-timed Rudd leaks undermined any momentum. With the electorate still suspicious of Abbott, the election produced a hung parliament and a tug of war for the balance of power.

Labor quickly signed a formal alliance with the Greens which was widely derided. Gillard felt it would provide momentum for negotiations with the other independents and have constitutional weight with the governor-general. The decision sparked outright war by the Murdoch media stable which hated the Greens. They waged war against the government and did not cease until the 2013 election. Andrew Wilkie also signed up with Labor while Bob Katter sided with the Coalition leaving the decision of government with independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor. The former Nationals cared deeply about climate change and consulted with Garnaut and Nicholas Stern to work out their position. They agreed to go with Gillard demanding a re-examination of the carbon price, an updated Garnaut Review and a productivity commission study of international action on emissions reduction schemes.

Gillard appointed a Multi-Party Climate Change Commission (MPCCC) which Abbott would not support. The MPCCC made good progress and within six month came up with the framework for the Clean Energy Future package. In February 2011 The Australian revealed Gillard would introduce a carbon tax in 2012 and an ETS in 2015. Gillard and Bob Brown formally announced a fixed carbon price would begin on 1 July 2012. Gillard said Australia had to put a price on carbon early to manage inevitable change. Abbott called the carbon price a tax and said he would campaign constantly against it. That night Gillard went on ABC’s 7.30 where she could have described the new fixed price as a charge on the country’s biggest polluters. Instead she admitted she was happy to call her “market-based mechanism to price carbon” a tax. The damage was done, Gillard lost the next election there and then.

The Opposition immediately called Gillard a liar. Gillard was stuck in a losing battle of semantics reflected in abysmal polls that never recovered. The Opposition colluded in a public campaign of intimidation bordering on violence. It legitimised scepticism in a scare campaign with five parts: unimaginable price rises, huge power bills, the destruction of coal, steel, cement, aluminium and motor industries, thousands of job losses, and the death of regional towns.

The media constantly called out the negative impacts of the carbon price. When Cate Blanchett advertised support of carbon pricing, she was lampooned in the press for a week as a “pampered star” and “Carbon Cate”. Despite the ferocity of the attacks, the government said nothing. Gillard was making the same mistake as Rudd: ignoring the voters while the details were going through the sausage factory. Gillard’s silence was deliberate, she didn’t want to antagonise MPCCC support but the effect was public disdain. Her approval rating plunged to 17%, equal with the worst rating of Paul Keating.

The government took heart in the electorate’s continued suspicions over the relentless negativity of Tony Abbott. What Labor could not deal with was the return of Kevin Rudd. Rudd’s backers asserted they could still win the next election with him at the helm. The Government introduced the Clean Energy Fund in June 2011 and Gillard successfully marshalled it through parliament. The carbon tax would be introduced a year later at the European price of $23 a tonne giving the electorate 12 months of “lived experience” of carbon pricing before the election. Labor also gave $10 billion over five years to a new Clean Energy Finance Corporation, a green investment bank idea borrowed from the UK.

Finally the government gave thought to the communication strategy. Its research said they should avoid explaining climate change or justifying carbon pricing. Instead they would immunise the public by paying them off. But when it came to the “lived experience” people could not easily determine if the effects were good or bad. Abbott’s claim the world would fall in was ludicrous but dissatisfaction remained at rising costs, with massive electricity price spikes due to rising network charges. Gillard’s hope for “clear air” to explain the package ran into a renewed Rudd leadership challenge.

The leaks and briefings escalated in 2013 and by June the destabilisation had made Gillard’s leadership untenable. But the collateral damage was intense and Rudd and Labor were swept from office in September 2013. The summer of 2012-2013 was the hottest on record but that was of no interest to the new government. Abbott moved quickly to axe the Climate Commission, abolish the Climate Change ministry and appoint a climate sceptic to review the Renewable Energy Target. The victory of the sceptics, however temporary, has left the “wicked problem” of climate change as far from a solution as ever. Hopes for a consensus remain poor as long as the Abbott clique remains in power. As Chubb writes, Australia could long rue its power failures between 2008 and 2013.

Slowly recovering from Kevin Rudd

Photo credit: Andrew Meares
Photo credit: Andrew Meares

Little wonder that Tony Abbott should lead the plaudits for the retiring Kevin Rudd, as few helped Abbott to the Prime Ministership as much as his predecessor.

Rudd’s three year destablisation of the former Gillard Government eventually succeeded in ousting her from the leadership. But the collateral damage had too greatly tarnished Labor in the public mind and the seemingly unelectable Abbott easily triumphed in September. Rudd’s supporters bragged their man had ‘saved the furniture‘ but it was his vandalism that left Labor’s tables and chairs in such a precarious place in the first place. Gillard never got the credit for her work and in tandem with Abbott and Rupert Murdoch, Rudd worked to destroy her legacy.

Rudd was always a long-term planner when it came to self interest. From the moment he was elected to parliament in 1998, he assiduously courted the media, contacting opinion editors to get his work published and going over their heads when they refused. He gained influence of a different sort when he tandem-teamed with Joe Hockey on the Seven Sunrise program for several years. He considered running as leader against Latham in 2004, defeated Kim Beazley two years later and then oversaw Howard’s End in 2007. As Prime Minister his approval ratings soared with big ticket statements such as the Apology adding to his lustre while he and Wayne Swan oversaw an interventionist response to the GFC which saved Australia from recession.

But Rudd had too many ideas that went nowhere. He started to unravel in December 2009 after he failed to bring home a climate change agreement in Copenhagen. The same month the domestic political consensus on climate change unravelled thanks to new Opposition leader Tony Abbott and his right wing supporters. As Rudd flagged in the polls, word got out he was a prime minister who fretted over irrelevancies while tumbleweeds gathered over the big decisions. Rudd was the consummate media performer – his mastery over the airwaves got him his huge public profile in the first place – but as Prime Minister he worked the entire government’s decision-making process into the media cycle. As Kerry-Anne Walsh said in The Stalking of Julia Gillard, Rudd took didn’t have what it took to lead a political party: “A steely and steady personality, the ability to be calm under great pressure and under the weight of extreme criticism, and consistently clear thinking.”

Most of these deficiencies were known to party colleagues from the time he ran against Kim Beazley in 2006. Yet those colleagues knew Rudd was more popular than Beazley and backed him anyway. But by mid-2010 that popularity had finally waned and Rudd was cut loose. If anyone thought Rudd would gently stand aside and quit, they were quickly mistaken. Within weeks of his overthrow, journalists were printing exclusive inside stories of Gillard’s “bastardry”. In the lead-up the 2010 election, Gillard’s hopes of clinging to victory were undermined by a series of devastating questions from Laurie Oakes that showed intimate knowledge of what happened on the night Rudd was deposed.

Gillard retained the Prime Ministership by dint of her negotiation skills with former Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Together they carved out an agreement to ensure a minority government would last the full three years. Minority governments are common in Europe but in Australia they were considered a recipe for chaos and the Opposition aided by a friendly press continually pointed this out, despite the 43rd parliament’s good record on passing legislation. Rudd, meanwhile, was always ready to thrust himself back in the limelight whenever the opportunity offered itself – usually at the worst possible time for Gillard.

Early in the term, Gillard sealed her fate by agreeing to Greens and Independents demands to put a fixed price on carbon. It was Abbott who declared the fixed price a tax and hung Gillard on her pre-election statement there would be no carbon tax. Less well remembered was the second half of that sentence: “..but let me be clear, I will be putting a price on carbon and I will move to an emission trading scheme.” It didn’t matter – from that moment shock jock Alan Jones and others could get away with calling her “Juliar”. By the first anniversary of Rudd’s defeat, the knives were out, inside and outside parliament. Newspapers feverishly reported “exclusive” polls in marginal seats that showed voters were clamouring for Rudd’s return. At the last moment Rudd and wife Therese Rein cancelled what the media called an Assassination Party “for K’s former and current staff to say thank you” as Rein tweeted.

While Gillard implemented the carbon pricing package with help of the Greens, Rudd stole the limelight again with an announcement he was having heart surgery. As Walsh said Rudd knew the key to media success was “a consistent presence combined with a dash of theatre”.  So whether it was a blow-by-blow account of his ticker troubles or designing a blend of tea for a competition, Rudd would always pop up reminding people what they were missing. The media lapped it up and ran it in tandem with Gillard’s disaster du jour and op eds that blared “Rudd was Labor’s last chance”. Yet even as Labor slipped in the polls, the caucus remained firmly behind Gillard. Unlike Rudd, she was consultative and dependable, albeit apparently unelectable.

Rudd’s supporters – Alan Griffin and Mark Bishop – denounced the people that brought Gillard to power as ‘faceless men’ without a hint of irony that Rudd’s own shadowy undermining campaign depends on anonymity and sourceless quotes to favourites in the media. Rudd relied on the momentum they created in the media to finally overwhelm his opponent (Gillard, not Abbott).  Much was made of the likely slaughter for the ALP in Queensland in the 2013 election with pundits predicting only Rudd would survive. Yet Rudd’s feverish campaigning in the 2012 state election for Anna Bligh had little effect on the election – analysts preferring to concentrate on what they thought Bligh’s annihilation would mean for Gillard. Rudd meanwhile “zipped” around, secure in his public popularity and posing for selfies with adoring fans.

On February 18, 2012 a strange video popped up on Youtube entitled “Kevin Rudd is a happy little Vegemite”. It is the first public glimpse of a Rudd many insiders knew, foul-mouthed, explosive temper and quick to blame. A few days later, he resigned as foreign minister citing attacks by colleagues and declaring he no longer had Gillard’s support. With a leadership fight out in the open, Gillard calls in the heavy artillery. Minister after minister denounced Rudd’s tactics in an extraordinary series of public attacks. Wayne Swan said they were sick of Rudd “driving the vote down by sabotaging policy announcements and undermining our substantial economic successes.”

Gillard called for a ballot and Rudd delayed, knowing he did not have the numbers. The media helped again, saying that it might be a two-phase ballot with defeat followed by victory six months later like Paul Keating in 1991. Gillard eventually won the ballot easily 71-31. Rudd retired to the back bench but the cameras followed him as he lapped up the attention. The “clear air” Gillard’s team craved never came. The media carving remained relentless and the Chinese whispers only served to add to the pollution. History repeated itself as farce in March 2013 when Simon Crean fell on his own sword in an attempt to coax Rudd out for another challenge. Rudd counted the numbers and ducked the challenge rather than lose to Gillard again. But still the sideshow went on, Rudd pumped his persona up and Labor’s poll numbers went down. In June, staring defeat in the face, Bill Shorten blinked and handed Rudd back the leadership.

There was an instant coffee effect with polls briefly returning to 50-50. But Rudd was the souffle that tried to rise twice. Murdoch’s empire was just as ruthless to him as they were to Gillard and as soon as he called the election, they openly called on the electorate to “kick this mob out“. Labor were a rabble, but it was as much Rudd’s doing as any. As Walsh wrote, Rudd “always had to be at the chaotic centre of attention, and whose needs and ambitions inevitably took priority over the interests of the government and the Labor Party, or his loyalty to colleague.” He had no workable strategy, which is why once returned, he was defeated by the most underscrutinised Opposition in Australian political history. As ever with Kevin Rudd, the collateral damage was immense, leaving Labor a broken party.  More importantly he badly failed the public. His failure to implement the “great moral challenge of our generation” leaves the next generation blaming Rudd’s megalomania as much as Abbott’s foolish policies for Australia’s climate change intransigence.

Kevin Rudd BS exposed again

The Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard rolls on after another extraordinary day in Australia politics. Regional Australia Minister Simon Crean fell on his sword after his ‘circuit breaker’ call for a spill failed to flush out Kevin Rudd. In the week leading up to the vote, the party remained solidly behind Gillard while the media bought the “Rudd BS” as Mark Latham called it. Latham said Rudd’s politics were based on the “whatever it takes” culture instilled in the party by 1980s numbers man Graham Richardson.

Latham was never a fan of Rudd, but he was right the former Prime Minister always had a healthy dose of whatever it takes, hidden only slightly behind very thin skin. A few days ago he used the bravura of a St Patrick’s Day speech to make an Ides of March declaration “I will challenge…”.  The pause that came before the rest: “…any of the Liberals present to claim to have a greater Irish heritage than me” hid the real punchline: It was Gillard’s job he was challenging for. Just as Rudd’s Irishness is fake, today he proved he was no Cassius either. After consulting his backers, he realised he didn’t have the numbers again and decided not to contest the ballot. Rudd painted his decision as “honouring his word” not to challenge.

Gillard won her third ballot as leader, the two unopposed ballots sandwiching her one victory over Rudd last year. Television screens which boasted ‘non-stop coverage of the Labor leadership’ fixed on the sombre Prime Minister as she faced the Canberra press gallery after the vote. Over the whirring and clicking from photographers, Gillard said she would make a statement but would not take questions today, because “there is very much work to do”.

Gillard thanked the caucus for its continued support. She accepted it as Prime Minister and Labor leader, not because she sought office for its own sake, but to help Australia meet it challenges. Gillard repeated they had a lot of work to do to ensure “jobs and opportunity” and to ensure they were “getting ready for the future”.

Gillard outlined the Government’s purpose: implementing the NBN, rolling out Disability Care, fighting cost of living pressures, and above all increasing access to “world class education”. Gillard said the leadership battle was settled in the most conclusive way possible. “It has ended now.” Gillard said they would be getting on with the job “in a few minutes” and handed over to deputy PM, Wayne Swan, also re-elected unopposed.

Swan said there was strong support for the PM in the party room. “This Prime Minister is a tough leader, and a leader who is a great champion for our country and for the reforms that are required to create future prosperity,” Swan said. “Today’s result does end these matters once and for all.” Swan also ended with the promise to get back to work. After all, he has a budget to prepare.

Expect this mantra of “work” to be used a lot in the coming months as Labor clears the decks for the September election. But don’t expect the press gallery to pay any notice. Joe Hildebrand set the tone with a vicious attack on Gillard’s regime, outing himself as a Rudd supporter in the process: “For an electrifying few hours this week there was the tantalising prospect that Labor was not hurtling towards certain oblivion and there was a chance, however remote, that it might actually win the next election on the back of a resurgent Kevin Rudd.”

Hildebrand was right about the disaster of Rudd’s panicked overthrow in 2010 for which Labor is repenting at leisure. But putting Rudd back in now would be beyond panic. Electoral defeat in 2013 is still the likely outcome for either leader, given the polls and the contempt of the press gallery. Today’s events show how much Rudd is still detested in the party for his overwhelming ego and his chronic failures to consult as leader.

Shitstorm: The Rudd Government’s response to the Global Financial Crisis

The Germans, in their infinite wisdom, chose the word “shitstorm” as their Anglicism of the Year in 2012. The jury defined shitstorm as a public outcry in which arguments mix with threats and insults to reach a critical mass, forcing a reaction. Shitstorm, they said, filled a gap in German vocabulary “through changes in the culture of public debate.” The influential urban dictionary has a more pithy explanation, calling it a “gigantic cluster fuck”.  The 2010 book Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days by Lenore Taylor and David Uren is about the gigantic cluster fuck that was the Global Financial Crisis. Taylor is one of the country’s most respected political journalists while Uren has written on economic issues for 35 years so they team up well to discuss how the GFC shitstorm impacted Australian politics and the economy.

The book takes its name from a quote then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in a television interview. On March 8, 2009, Rudd spoke to a live studio audience on the Seven Network’s Sunday Night program about the government’s response to the GFC. Responding to opposition claims about the debt Labor created to fund its stimulus, Rudd said it was a choice between letting the market fix it up or intervening with temporary borrowings. “People have to understand that,” Rudd said, “because there is going to be the usual political shitstorm – sorry, political storm over that.” The swearword was likely a choreographed error from Rudd who left little to chance.

shitstormDeliberate or not, the choice of words was typical Rudd. The cover of the book Shitstorm shows the four members of the kitchen cabinet: Rudd, Linday Tanner, Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard. Rudd has his back to the camera. He is not interested in us, he is conducting his orchestra. But his players are not in tune. Finance Minister Tanner is looking off right, Treasurer Swan is looking left and only Rudd’s deputy Gillard is looking vaguely in his direction, but with her own agenda. The gang of four of the Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee (SPBC) made most political decisions many of which are still debated. But Australia avoided a recession, when the economies of the world crashed like ninepins around them.

Rudd was right about the shitstorm, but could not see he would be a casualty. His sensational sacking happened after the book was released. Taylor and Uren never saw it coming either. No one did outside a small circle of Labor apparatchiks. The panic-stricken parliamentary putsch in June 2010 that cost Rudd his job as first-term Prime Minister left the Australian polity reeling, locked the nation into costly backflips, and severely damaged the trust between Labor and their own supporters that remains today.

The Julia Gillard government scraped over the line in the October 2010 election thanks to her negotiating skills. But she had to promise no carbon tax reversing a 2007 election promise. The distant drum of the US sub-prime mortgage crisis had little effect in 2007. In Australia the worry was interest rates which had risen 10 times due to mining growth.

Rudd and Howard knew the crash was coming but kept it out of the election campaign. Rudd couldn’t risk talking about a crisis as it would highlight Labor “inexperience” while it was inconvenient to Howard’s “don’t risk good times” message. When Labor won there was little time to celebrate. The first effect in Australia was the cost of borrowing. The big banks’s short term loans were suddenly exposed as money fled the banking system. No Australian bank had to close its doors but there were times when the queue was down the street (prompting banks to consider how to keep large queues inside).

As the cost of money rose, the Australian banks took the near unprecedented step of rising interest rates without a Reserve Bank signal. The first bank tipped off Swan in advance but the next one didn’t. The treasurer advised people to switch banks but he could see there was a problem brewing. While on summer holidays at Cotton Tree beach on the Sunshine Coast, he took a call from US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that terrified him. Paulson said the US “might be able to see a way” through the crisis if house prices didn’t collapse. Swan knew it was a big if.

It was the first item of business when Rudd returned to work after Christmas. Labor promised a budget surplus of $18 billion (around 1.5% GDP). China continued to eat up Aussie minerals, but elsewhere the news kept getting worse. When Rudd went to Washington in March, he met the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn who told him the sub-prime lending mess would cost the world a trillion dollars (a figure later upgraded to $3 trillion). Governments would ultimately bear much of that cost.

By May 2008 budget, Swan was under pressure to abandon $47 billion of promised tax cuts. The Government held firm but had to hold back on cuts they hoped would keep the books in the black. Swan couldn’t yet admit the growing crisis for fear of impacting consumer confidence. Matters spiralled out of control in September 2008 when the US’s fourth largest investment bank, Lehmann Brothers went bankrupt with $613 billion owing on uncertain assets. Trillions in securities across the world guaranteed or counter-signed by Lehmans were now at risk. The US’s largest insurer AIG’s shared dipped 70% with $550 billion tied up in sub-prime mortgages. Largest US mortgage-lender Washington Mutual saw their shares nosedive and mutual funds dumped securities to meet a run on redemptions. The bond market died as no one would lend for anything longer than one day.

Australia had $800 billion of debt, of which $500 billion was short-term subject to constant finance. As America’s financial wobble threatened to tsunami across the Pacific, Swan’s message was simple: “We are not immune but better placed than most to weather the coming storm”. But an IMF meeting in Washington in October 2008 would tell him the storm was worsening: it was enough for a clean bank to have links with a toxic bank to be in trouble. China’s boom would not save Australia.

Swan knew financial stimulus was needed. Rudd quickly warmed to the idea too. Over Christmas Rudd had been reading the economic ideas of EG Theodore whose bitter regret was a lack of Australian government action which prolonged the 1930s Great Depression. Rudd was not about to let it happen again. Panicky people salted $5.5 billion out of Australian banks in ten weeks since Lehman went bust, and second tier banks Suncorp and Bankwest were at risk of collapse. Rudd guaranteed all term wholesale bank funding and retail deposits. Smaller mortgagees like Challenger Howard were not protected and in two years the four big banks increased their home-lending share from 60 to 85% .

While the SPBC was arguing over the size of a stimulus, it was startled by the news the Reserve bank had dropped interest rates by 1%. This was twice as much as Treasury recommended. Rudd had learned the lesson from Treasury relief package model which was to ‘go early, go hard, go households’. The SPBC would also double Treasury’s recommendation with a $10 billion package –  $8.7m in cash handouts and $1.5m on the First Home Owner Grant. There was also $6.2m to build a green car. Rudd’s message was they were ‘deploying the surplus’ to secure the economy. Shocked Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull gave immediate bi-partisan support. Labor’s own cabinet was in the dark about the proposal and unhappy about it. Rudd blamed the need for speed and ‘extreme market sensitivities’ but his downfall can be charted to this decision.

The IMF predicted the world economy would stagnate in 2009. The stimulus kept Australian tills ringing through Christmas but business confidence was low. The Government pushed hard to strengthen Howard’s G20 as a forum to make global recommendations. They were supported by the US which saw the G8 as too happy to install euro-centric banking controls, anathema to the Bush administration. In November 2008, the IMF told the G20 they needed to fund a stimulus worth 2% of GDP.  This was huge, yet they were underplaying the situation. The IMF’s chief economist Olivier Blanchard knew any higher recommendation would ‘scare people to death’. Countries took notice. Even mighty China announced a $600b Keynesian spending package on infrastructure projects.

The Rudd Government was in difficult political territory. Spending would ease unemployment but it would kill their surplus promise. Rudd and Swan refused to say the word deficit for months until they finally admitted it was temporary. The linguistic games showed frustrated ministers that Rudd’s office had centralised decision-making to an unacceptable level.

Rudd plotted a large-scale construction program to keep up employment. Schools were chosen because they didn’t need much lead time or lengthy council planning approvals. The $16.2b Building the Education Revolution program was supplemented by a $6.6b social housing program and $2.7b on a solar installation package. Labor also needed a quick ‘sugar hit’ and gave another cash handout to taxpayers worth $8b designed to keep money circulating. The total package was 2.4% of GDP in the first year, beyond the IMF measure but reduced to 1.8% in 2010-2011. By the second package in February 2009, Treasury was predicting Australia would avoid a recession. It was a magnificent achievement but there were serious flaws. The solar rebate was so high, it led to huge demand and shonky work practices with fatal results.

There was another  major casualty of the downturn – the ETS, known in Ruddspeak as the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. The CPRS was due in 2010 but the Government delayed it a year to include extra compensation called a ‘global recession buffer’. Rudd decided to get his new “browner” plan through the Senate with the help of the Liberals rather than with the Greens who wanted tougher environmental action. Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull was supportive but undone by deep divisions in his own party. The eventual compromise was torpedoed by Liberal hardliners led by Nick Minchin and a spill led to the surprise election of Tony Abbott as opposition leader in December 2009.

Abbott reneged on the CPRS, leaving Labor stranded. Rudd was so sure the Liberals would support it, he spent no time selling it to the public. It would be impossible to run a double dissolution election on a complicated scheme that Abbott was calling a “great new tax on everything”. The failure of the Copenhagen climate change talks in December was the nail in the coffin and Rudd delayed the ‘great moral imperative of our time’ to 2013.

As Taylor and Uren’s book approached deadline,  Labor’s three-year-long polling honeymoon was over and the Liberals were neck-and-neck. The media hammered them over stimulus plan failures. Rudd axed the installation scheme and Peter Garrett became the scapegoat ministerial scalp. The audit office found colossal waste in BER including substandard work and inflexible design. The budget surplus was a mirage and the Government had troubling selling its economic message for different reasons than before. During the height of the crisis, minister could not be frank for fear of damaging confidence, now they couldn’t sell the recovery because it would draw attention to the spending issues.

To Rudd and Swan’s credit, they saw the GFC coming earlier than most. They acted quicker than most and deeper and with the help of the Reserve Bank and China, Australia emerged almost unscathed. Abbott ridiculed 25 months of ‘Whitlamesque spending’ but Rudd saved the country from years of austerity with his infrastructure stimulus. What neither he nor anyone saw was that Australia would recover so quickly. His successor Julia Gillard suffered in the 2010 poll but held on with a debt burden that would cripple Australia’s ability to implement real change in the difficult decades to come. As Taylor and Uren concluded, the political shitstorm would be ‘wilder and more damaging that Kevin Rudd ever imagined’.

Julia Gillard’s Day Zero

No one seems to accept this as a possibility yet but Labor may well have won the next election today. Everyone does agree the Federal Government has been through the most extraordinary two weeks of bloodletting – not so much airing its dirty linen in public as proudly wearing it at a fancy dress party. From Simon Crean’s early promptings, to the mysterious airing of Rudd’s sweary video, the revelations of the Four Corners program of what Gillard did and did not know, Rudd’s overseas midnight resignation, the ferocious response of Government Ministers and Gillard’s ultimate triumph today, it has been gift-wrapped coverage for our media. Hundreds of journalists were in Canberra today for the vote which was a foregone conclusion. Yet none of them picked up in advance the biggest story of the day – the resignation of Mark Arbib. It shows the length Labor may be prepared to go to kill the leadership debate and end the political drama.

Along with fellow minister Bill Shorten, Arbib was behind that drama – the ultimate face of the faceless men who deposed Rudd in 2010. With senior minister Nicola Roxon admitting on the weekend she was unaware of the impending coup, it was Arbib and Shorten who Rudd considered the backstabbers-in-chief. Given he has not forgiven the party for his sacking, it is not beyond the possibility Rudd demanded a faceless head as his price for supporting Gillard post ballot. Arbib’s confusing resignation statement hinted there was something stronger than the “family reasons” offered as the main cause. As a Senator he could leave without Labor facing a by-election.

Meanwhile Kevin Rudd seemed at ease after the ballot today. Perhaps he has exercised some of the demons of his 2010 defeat which occurred without a ballot. The initial reports were that he had just 29 supporters in caucus but it was soon revised to 71-31. This was a margin that seem to please everyone in Government. Gillard was handsomely re-elected with over a two to one majority. Rudd was not disgraced (those two missing votes getting him into the respectable thirties) without getting the 40 or so votes he needed for the legitimacy of a second challenge to the leadership. His speech afterwards was both valedictory and apologetic. He stood up for a belief in his achievements but acknowledged others saw it differently. Most importantly he committed to Gillard for the life of her Government, effectively ending his leadership challenge until she retires or is beaten at the polls.

This was also a coded message to the media: he was off the drip. With no other senior minister with a serious axe to grind, there should be few further leaks of the kind that has destabilised the Gillard regime from the moment it took office. The media will keep Rudd on the preferred prime minister poll question as they do Malcolm Turnbull. But just as with Turnbull, Rudd leadership stories will run short of juice without a quote from a “Senior Government Minister”.

The similarities with Turnbull extend beyond this. Both men are brilliant intellectuals but brittle and difficult to work with. Both have probably burned their bridges with their caucus colleagues and may have to set up a third (or fourth) party if they are to ever re-establish their leadership credentials. Rudd in particular is damaged goods. The Australian hailed him as Labor’s best hope to defeat the Coalition in 2013, but his clear lead in the preferred prime minister stakes was in stark contrast to the respect he held from the vast majority of caucus members.

It is the difference between having to vote for him and having to work for him. Rudd has mastered a media image of the socially incompetent nerd. It doesn’t appear to matter to voters he hasn’t a shred of genuineness in him as long as he has that smile to crash or crash through any awkwardness. Behind the scenes, other parts of his personality were free to do their ugly work far from public prying. 24 x 7’s Kevin’s obsessive desire for control, glass jaw and an enormous untrammelled ego led to an unhealthy work environment.

While the self-styled “K Rudd” now sits chastened on the naughty back bench, Prime Minister Gillard seemed ebullient post-ballot. The all-out attack strategy was risky but necessary to kill off her challenger. She has given Abbott his election ads but they will probably be lost anyway in a tasteless and bland stew of negative messages. She also fended off Abbott’s Question Time attack today with ease making him look like a carping yesterday’s man while she was the forward looking leader. Such decisiveness may not last but it at least she can now attack without having to watch her flanks.

These two weeks have told us where the corpses are buried but the public is not bothered by the macabre spectacle. Labor got its best result in 12 months in the latest Newspoll today. The two party preferred is 53-47 to the Coalition which is in the margin of error for 50-50. The punters don’t seem to mind the blood-bath when they can see exactly who is throwing the punches. It is also a reminder of the old mantra that when it comes to a vote “It’s The Economy, Stupid”. The Coalition remains all over the place in its economic policy in a time when Australia is in a relatively good position. Abbott’s policy-free zone was a safe bet only as long as Labor continued killing each other. Gillard’s win may not yet have given her clear air, but the fog of war has just got a little less dense.

A Very Australian Coup

Julia Gillard has been Australian Prime Minister now for almost two weeks and the mutterings have begun about whether she is right for the job after her mining compromise and willingness to sacrifice refugees on the barbecue of marginal outer Sydney electorates.

Few in Australia have questioned her right to be Prime Minister. Despite the very presidential style of modern elections, people vote for MPs and they decide who leads them, and therefore the country. The media, so wrapped up in the exciting specifics of the overthrow, accepted the legitimacy of the Westminster system”.In her first media conference Julia Gillard acknowledged she had not been elected Prime Minister by the Australian people. “In coming months I will ask the Governor-General to call for a general election so that the Australian people can exercise their birthright to choose their Prime Minister.”

Despite the media narrative of her need to get a “mandate”, Gillard never mentioned the word in her early statements. Merrion Webster defines the word mandate in this context as “an authorisation to act given to a representative”. According to that definition Gillard has all the mandate she needs, elected unopposed by her party with the backing of powerful union bosses.

If the Australian media are sanguine about this turn of events, opinions are more uneasy overseas where the Westminster system has less sway. US papers called it a party revolt and a mutiny. Craig McMurtrie from the ABC’s Washington bureau said a Washington Post columnist though it looked disturbingly like a coup d’etat. There was no blood spilled or tanks on the lawn. Nevertheless it was ruthless overthrow of a country’s elected leader without the consent of the people.

Australian have been blinded by its commonness at State level where many premiers, most recently Kristina Keneally have been elevated into office by the backdoor. It is also common at the Federal Opposition level with Labor and the Liberals changing their leaders many times in the last ten years when out of power. But it is surprisingly rare at the highest level of Government. Only twice has an Australian Prime Minister been dumped by their own party in office – Gorton for McMahon in 1971 and Hawke for Keating in 1991. The 20 year symmetry wasn’t quite there for Kevin Rudd but the brutal machinations of backroom party politics were reminiscent of past coups. Even Gillard’s own Party has not yet caught up. The Australian Labor website is still called www.kevin07.com.au.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott came out with a curious denunciation of the coup. He called it a political assassination (though Rudd may yet rise from that particular death) and an “ugly process” and said “Prime ministers should not be treated in this way.” Presumably Abbott must think it is okay for Opposition leaders to be treated that way.

Though he has no intention of doing anything about it, Abbott is correct in his criticism. Prime Ministers should not be appointed out of backroom deals and it can be changed. The Australian Constitution is silent on the matter of Prime Ministers and what exists are conventions to “assist the smooth operation of the legislature.”

Smooth doesn’t begin to describe the operation to depose Rudd. But there was shock, distaste and a sense of powerlessness among the wider public (despite goodwill to towards Gillard). That is not good for democracy. It is time for people power to assert itself and insist the Prime Minister they elected is only removed when they say so.